May 23, 2017

Backpack trips in the Sierra Nevadas

I have now done 29 backpacks in the Sierra (over a span of more than 30 years) and spent well over 100 days backpacking and hiking the High Sierra.

  1. Pine Creek and Gable Creek - 1971 (no photos)
  2. Rock Creek - 1973 (?) (no photos)
  3. Bishop Pass - 1989 (?) (no photos)
  4. Whitney 1 - 1990 (no photos)
  5. Whitney 2 - 1992 ? (no photos)

  6. Taboose Pass - 2004
  7. Evolution Region - 2006
  8. Evolution Region - 2006 (OLD)
  9. Taboose Pass - 2009
  10. Pine Creek and Mt. Humphreys - 2010
  11. Shepherd Pass - 2011 (big snow year)
  12. Lone Pine Creek, Mt. Russell - 2011
  13. Rae Lakes Loop - 2011
  14. Sierra High Route, above Pine Creek - July, 2012
  15. Sierra High Route, North - August, 2012
  16. Kearsarge Pass - July, 2013
  17. Bishop Pass - August, 2013

  18. Kearsarge to Whitney - September, 2013
  19. Tuolumne to Yosemite - July, 2014
  20. Amphitheater Lake - August, 2014
  21. Sawmill Pass - October, 2014
  22. JMT and Fire! - September, 2015
  23. Kearsarge Pass - June, 2016
  24. Baxter Pass (and Telescope Peak) - July, 2016
  25. Shepherd Pass, Mt. Whitney - September, 2017
  26. Amanda's Loop - July, 2018
  27. Sawmill Pass to Bench Lake - August, 2018
  28. Kearsarge Pass and Charlotte Lake - August, 2019
  29. Gardiner Basin - July, 2020
Over the years, I have covered almost all of the John Muir Trail as well as the Sierra High Route. I have done each bit by bit in sections and heartily endorse this way of doing things. These are very different endeavors. The Sierra High Route is for people who are at least 50 percent mountaineer.

Special interests

My special interests that is. These have changed and mutated over time. In my young days, mountaineering filled my mind, but increasingly just wandering, exploring remote places, and identifying wildflowers has become more important.

Other routes

First there was the JMT, then the SHR gained some popularity in certain circles. Now other "routes" are being promoted. One of particular interest is a southerly extension of the SHR (since not everyone wants to exit west to roads end).


You would be crazy to go on a hike in the Sierra without a map. Without a doubt, the best are the maps by Tom Harrison Maps. They are printed on some kind of waterproof plastic material and are indispensible. Along with them I will sometimes print more detailed (1:24000 scale) maps of areas of specific interest.

If you get to looking at the maps done by the USGS, you will be dismayed to discover that some have elevations in feet, and others have elevations in meters. In general the more recent maps have elevations in meters and are inferior to the older maps (as well as being an infernal nuisance). Here is a table of feet to meter to conversions that I find handy:

7000 feet2133 meters
8000 feet2438 meters
9000 feet2743 meters
10000 feet3048 meters
11000 feet3352 meters
12000 feet3657 meters
13000 feet3962 meters
14000 feet4267 meters

Weather (and when to go)

See my page on Sierra weather.

An interesting recommendation (from Porcella and Burns excellent guidebook "Climbing Californias Fourteeners") is:

We have found 0-degree fahrenheit bags to be the minimum for "under the stars" comfort during the summer.
In winter, a bag rated at -20 to -30 degrees Fahrenheit should be taken for these mountains.
This sounds extreme, but matches my personal experience pretty well. If you are in a tent or have a metabolism like a steel-mill you can make adjustments accordingly.

Summer weather in the sierra is typically excellent with low temperatures in the thirties (but temperatures in the twenties are by no means unusual at elevations from 10,000 to 12,000 which is where I like to be camping.)

Current Conditions

A great source of information is the website of the Whitney Portal Store. The message board there is a very good source of up to date information.

However, due to disk space and bandwidth issues, the forums on the above site were shut down when I visited in mid July of 2011 (but back up a few days later), with the suggestion to use the forums on the following alternate site: Whitney Zone Forums.

Another site that gets referenced quite a bit from both of the above forums is the California section of

The 3 sites above are probably your best source of up to date information. I am registered at the first two as "Tucson Tom", the last as "TucsonTom" (the spider).

Note that I do not include the parks or forest service as useful sources of information.

Transportation Options

My notes on driving from Tucson.

There is something called the CREST bus. Apparently It runs from Ridgecrest to Reno or something like that, so it could be really handy for certain shuttle type things.

What I am told is that it heads south on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday (leaving Lone Pine at 10AM). It goes north on Tuesday and Thursday (leaving Lone Pine at 6AM).

Another recommended option is:

The Mt. Whitney Shuttle Service
Shuttle Service for the Eastern Sierra
P.O. Drawer A, Lone Pine, CA 93545

Tel: 760-876-1915 best time to call: evenings (Pacific Time)
or send mail to:


Permits are a fact of life if you want to hike in the Sierra. There is a quota system (summer and fall, i.e. May 1 thru Nov 1). 25-40 percent of permits are reserved for walk in on the day they are issued. The rest are reservable in advance for a $5 per person fee (non refundable). (but see below for some additional fees they now are tacking on). Also the rules are always changing, so check the official agency web pages for details that I am not staying on top of.

Note that there are multiple agencies you may find yourself dealing with. Most of my experience has been with the Inyo National Forest. However, the agency that issues the permit is the agency within which your hike starts. So, if you are starting a hike in Yosemite park, you will be dealing with the parks permit reservation system, which as of 2013 is not, as it now is for the Inyo Forest.

Unless you plan to exit at Whitney Portal, they only care about your entry date (though they do ask how many nights you expect to be in the backcountry and try to get some idea of your itinerary, either for statistics gathering or so they have a clue if they need to launch a rescue, who knows.) You must pick up your permit by 10 AM on the day it is issued for (or call them if you are running late - good luck with that!) otherwise it will be released to walk-in people for that day.

Everything changed in 2012 as they switched to a long promised online reservation system for wilderness permits. To use the new system (for Inyo Forest only) you go to:

It is awkward and clumsy, but gets the job done. Once there, you can fumble around like I did. and select "Inyo" and "wilderness" What seems to work is to search for "Inyo National Forest Wilderness Permits". Hopefully that will get you started. It is a good example of how not to design a web site. Good luck, you will need it.

There is a $5.00 per person fee, and also an irksome $6.00 "reservation fee", so it cost me $11.00 to make a reservation for one person in June of 2012.

The following list of links and phone numbers were once helpful in planning and arranging trips, and perhaps still may be. It is challenging and difficult to get up to date trail information (from the government web sites anyway). In May of 2011, the Whitney Ranger station phone system was still playing a message describing Mount Whitney trail conditions in Ocober of 2010, with the admonition that "winter was on its way!!". Government agencies, in their effort to "look busy" are always rearranging their web pages, with little if any addition (and sometimes subtraction!) of content. I suppose this allows them to boast on annual reports of updating their web pages. I used to keep shortcuts here to key sections of their web pages, but have abandoned that as a hopeless endeavor.

I will say this for them, as wretched as their phone system and internet pages are, most of the human beings that I have had occasion to talk to have mostly been quite nice and helpful.

Once you have a reservation, you still need to go to an Inyo Forest Ranger station (there are four). It doesn't matter which one, any of them from Lone Pine to Lee Vining can write a permit. This proves to be a pain in the butt, since I find myself hard pressed to make the drive from Arizona and get there before they close for the day. As a result, I camp somewhere, get the permit in the morning, and drive to the trailhead and begin hiking mid-morning, rather than the crack of dawn. I suppose the main point of this is that you can be informed of rules and regulations, (which you can read on the website or the stuff they mail you with the reservation paperwork). I wish they would just mail the permits -- maybe this also helps them to confirm who actually shows up and gets on the trail, thus allowing them to allocate walk-in permits.

They mention a night box on the website, but told me in 2009 that this cannot be used if your trip will enter SEKI park. Maybe this has changed.

You can pick up your permit a day or two before your entry date. You must pick up your permit by 10AM, or your permit may be given to a walk-in person.

Taboose and Sawmill pass have a quota of 10 people per day. 6 permits may be reserved ahead of time, the other 4 are available for those who walk in the day of the permit. Baxter allows 8 people (split 5/3) and Shepherd Pass allows 15 (split 9/6). North Fork of Lone Pine Creek allows 10 (split 6/4).

Bears, and critters

Mount Whitney

Because of the number of people eager to climb the highest point (14,496 feet) in the 48 states, there are special issues and rules about the Whitney Trail. The powers that be have defined a "Whitney Zone" within which these rules apply. A lottery must be entered to get a permit to enter the zone. As with all such things, these rules change continually, and you ought to verify each year that what I say is so, and if what was true last year is still so. At this time, you obtain and fill out a lottery application, which must be postmarked sometime in February. Note that they begin processing applications mid-month, so if you are really serious, you want to mail your application as early as possible in February, not at the end of the month like I did in 2010. Expect results in April sometime. The relevant page for all of this is: Note that 100 day use permits are issued each day, along with 60 permits for overnight use each day, along with 25 permits per day for "trail crest" (from the west). In other words this is the most heavily used area in the Sierra backcountry, and you should not expect wilderness solitude.

Because of the hassle involved, and the heavy use in this area, I avoid the Whitney area and plan trips elsewhere.

Links and nice pages

Have any comments? Questions? Drop me a line!

Tom's hiking pages /